16 May 2007 malcolm   » (Master)

Foreign Workers In The USA

Articles like this one that suggest there are some pretty obvious abuses of the USA's H1-B visa program going on really annoy me. The article does a pretty good job of pointing out why there isn't any obvious way of returning the scheme to its original purpose without making things even more difficult for employers and employees (both local and international).

I have a very large vested in these problems: I'm an IT professional with a lot of experience who likes the US and wouldn't mind working in any number of places there. However, in the current climate, it isn't even possible to get a foot in the door and on the odd time when a firm hasn't done their homework and approaches me about an onsite position, interest rapidly dries up when they find out I'm Australian (on the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog a Southern hemisphere resident). There's even a special visa type for Australian professionals working in the US, but it's not well known and eyes have already glazed over by the time they hear "not currently able to work permanently in the US, but..."

The problem isn't isolated to the US, either. In most countries, an employer is taking on a lot of extra effort and expense when they consider trying to hire a foreign worker, even when genuine attempts to hire locally have been exhausted. The companies using foreign worker schemes as a way to ultimately outsource do not flag their applications as "frivolous" or "exploitative", so the genuine cases don't stand out from the others.

I have a lot of sympathy for the motivation behind a restricted visa program like this. International-scale outsourcing and other forms of job replacement make sense on a global economic scale, but at the level of the individual work, or community, it is completely debilitating. The reality is that knowing somebody else has a job doesn't put food on my table and the theoretical correction that redundant workers are retrained or placed elsewhere takes time and a person can't live outdoors and not eat for three months and then double up in the subsequent three: you are already in trouble after month one! So I am not an advocate for simplistic solutions like "increase the quota" or "add more sub-types", since that's a screw-your-buddy-in-the-other-country solution on a global scale.

There is not simple solution, or even necesarily a complex one, to this problem. How can you identify genuine cases where a foreign worker is the right solution, in the sense that they possess skills you cannot hire from your own country? How do you do this without driving down wages in a market-driven economy?

That, of course, is the counter-counter-argument: local job losses reallly bring home the downside of international markets and, yet, the same people live improved lives through the benefits of those same markets. Reduced income means you can no longer afford those foreign-manufactured shoes, clothers and cars that people like so much. Selective blindness to the bigger picture is certainly not a recent phenomenom. Everybody is aware of their own areas of speciality and take other pieces of the infrastructure they operate in as something akin to necessary and acceptable magic. Considering the full set of interactions is very depressing and only a few people have the necessary skills, drive and opportunity to try and take it all on.

I'm going through the first part of that last sentence at the moment: in many ways, I can't see that the regulators creating restricted working visa systems are doing the wrong thing. Politics is mostly local and it's often a question of considering how wide your local area extends when making decisions. I can easily get very angry at companies who try to work around such systems for purely their own benefits, though. I mean, a company like Wipro is, by their very nature, an outsourcing company. This isn't a case of a US company hiring a foreign worker directly. It may be legal, but I have trouble with the ethics behind it. Accenture is a trickier case. A US company with a huge multi-national presence where an internal transfer can involve a new country stamp in your passport. How do you stop them using foreign workers as a way of saving costs whilst still permitting cross-training experience that requires a couple of years to be worthwhile?

Like I said: no easy solutions here and the logistics of international business means it might well unfixable. There are other facets to the problem as well, particularly having to do with long-term contributions to the community you live/work in, but I don't want to write forever here. I mostly agree with what I wrote about a year ago in the comments at Dave's place, although I think I must have been on happy drugs at the time, because I'm a lot more frustrated by the realities now than I was then. On a practical level, I am grateful for the fact that most countries allow contract workers in most fields (particularly mine) to enter and work for a few months without requiring special visas. So off-site work with periodic visits are possible, as are short-term contracts.

Syndicated 2007-05-16 21:13:52 from Malcolm Tredinnick

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